Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Field Guide to Holy Week at St. Timothy's

A Holy Week rainbow over St. Timothy's in 2013

If you are relatively new to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition, Holy Week can seem like a formidable and even forbidding challenge: services every day or night, culminating in an intense period of fasting and one enormous middle-of-the-night liturgy followed by a glorious feast going into the morning hours. It is all so different from the usual “holiday spirit” of many churches, so unlike the neat-and-tidy Easter celebrations we usually see: and that is the point. Liturgy means “work of the people.” This week we experience in a special way the “work” of liturgy—and thus gain a blessing only faithful workers know.

Holy Week and Easter is the fountain of our faith. It is the essential point from which everything else we are and do flows. The events during this time form what we call the Paschal Mystery, and each Eucharist throughout the year is directly connected to that mystery, as is our entire Christian journey and discipleship.

To the degree you are physically able, it is important that all participate in these liturgies…not as an exterior ritual but as immersion into the Eternal Truth of Christ so that we may be what we receive and show forth what we experience. Please clear your calendar as much as possible during Holy Week and plan to attend Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil or Easter Day.

The events these liturgies recount and actualize cannot be made to conform to “normal” life. They point to something so radically upsetting to the usual, so counter-cultural and overturning that the only way to enter into them is by jumping in at the deep end so to speak, not standing coolly by as spectators or wading in with only our toes. And it is this immersive experience that characterizes the worship during Holy Week.

In that spirit, here are is a sort of liturgical “field guide” and FAQ about what to expect and what is most important along the way from Palm Sunday to Easter Day.

Palm Sunday service begins in the Parish Hall, recalling Christ's triumphal entry
into Jerusalem.

Palm Sunday: Holy Week begins (of primary importance)
This service is both raucous and solemn. Christ enters Jerusalem in a joyously ironic parade. We form up for the 10 AM service in the Parish Hall and make our way to the church bearing palms, immersing ourselves in the truth that Christ can be hailed King and yet turned against and abandoned out of the same mouth. After arrival in “Jerusalem” (the church’s nave), we hear the Passion Gospel read by various members of the congregation and participate directly in the story. The service culminates in the Holy Communion, being strengthened for the journey ahead with mystical food. This will be the last Eucharist until Maundy Thursday.

Monday and Tuesday in Holy Week (of secondary importance)
On these two days Christ engages in symbolic actions and spiritual teaching. Simple services of Evening Prayer are offered on Monday and Tuesday in the chapel (Morning Prayer in place of the usual Holy Eucharist service on Tuesday). We hear passages of Scripture and writings from the Early Church that give us insight about the offering Christ will make as well as what it means to follow him as disciples. These days are very much optional services, but help keep a continuity from Sunday to the Great Three Days of Thursday-Friday-Saturday/Sunday.

The extinguishing of candles features prominently in the
Tenebrae service.

Wednesday: The day of shadows (of secondary importance)
Wednesday in Holy Week has long been associated with Judas’ agreement to turn over Christ to the authorities. To mark this, St. Timothy’s offers the service of Tenebrae (“shadows” or “darkness” in Latin) at 7 in the evening. Formed of Psalms, laments, and readings about betrayal and forgiveness, this service makes us companions with Christ as he is gradually abandoned by those around him—symbolized by the gradual extinguishing of candles. The service concludes with an affirmation of Resurrection. The message is hope-through-trial, and it perfectly prepares us for the decisive events ahead. This is not an essential service, but is unique and valuable as a prelude. It is one of the most meditative services offered each year.

The Triduum – the Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday-Good Friday-Easter Eve/Day (Essential to attend)
These three days really form one great mystery (the Paschal Mystery of our salvation), and one service—there is no dismissal from the start of the Maundy Thursday liturgy through the end of the Great Vigil of Easter; we simply take breaks. Many people fast all or part of this time (especially for Good Friday). Each day expresses a part of the mystery and all should be experienced as a unity just as the seamless garment Christ wore shows us that his teaching and life are one integral, whole offering of Love and Truth. Participation in the Triduum is a crucial part of our commitment to follow Christ where he leads us as individuals and as a body; this offering of time and effort is amply rewarded. If you did not grow up observing Holy Week and Easter this way, you are invited to immerse yourself to the highest degree possible so as to experience the Paschal Mystery.

The parish's icon of Christ the Teacher, open to the Gospel
according to John and speaking of Christ as the Bread of Life.

1. Maundy Thursday

7 PM: Maundy Thursday Liturgy 
This service is an powerful mix of joy and sorrow, light and darkness. After starting much as the Lenten services do, it moves to focus on the two great commandments (or mandates, from which the word “Maundy” comes) Christ gave on this night: for members of his Body the Church to love each other as he loves us, and for Christians to share in his presence through the sacred mysteries of his Body and Blood. So, on this night the rite of foot-washing is offered—by which we see that humble service is essential in the Christian life—and the Eucharist is celebrated on the anniversary of its inauguration at the Last Supper. After this, Sacrament reserved for Good Friday communion is taken to the Altar of Repose in the chapel.  The altar is stripped and the Sacrament Lamp is pulled down and blown out while one of the Psalms of the Passion is sung, recalling Christ’s betrayal, arrest, and humiliation. The lights are lowered and we leave in silence.

After the altar is stripped at the Maundy service,
the tabernacle is left open and empty: the only time
this happens during the year. It is a sign of mourning and waiting
in faith.

Prayer Watch (of secondary importance; an annual opportunity everyone should take when possible)
Immediately after the Maundy service, an all-night Prayer Watch begins in the chapel until noon Friday, with parishioners taking one hour shifts to pray with Christ in the Holy Sacrament, recalling his words to his disciples: “could you not watch with me for one hour?” It goes all night and is a very powerful experience of silence, presence, and commitment. This is a particularly holy and blessed opportunity to stretch ourselves spiritually and physically for the sake of our God (a sign-up for the Prayer Watch is available in the narthex as we approach Holy Week; you may sign up at any time, even on Maundy Thursday itself). There may be more than one person in the chapel at a time during the Watch.


2. Good Friday (a solemn day to be marked by a complete fast if health permits)

The "old rugged cross" used at the Good Friday liturgy

Noon: Stations of the Cross (of secondary importance)
The Triduum continues on Good Friday with the noon Stations of the Cross in the nave, concluding the Prayer Watch. We will make the circuit of the church, recalling Christ’s passion and death, giving praise to Christ for his extreme humility and love.

From our parish's Stations of the Cross set.

7 PM: Good Friday Liturgy (the main Good Friday service)
The liturgy resumes in silence as we kneel in humility before God who has loved us so much as to allow his Son to take on our ancient enemies—Sin and Death—in personal combat, and to overcome them in Love Divine. The Passion Gospel according to St. John is then read, and a sermon preached. Following this, the assembly begins the Solemn Collects, taking our part as a priestly people before God, interceding on behalf of the world with our God who has redeemed the world and showing forth the true power and significance of what Christ has done on the Cross and continues to do through His Body, the Church. Then a rugged Cross is brought before the people and venerated by all those desiring to do so while hymns are sung. This can take a while and is often deeply personal— yet also profoundly communal. Finally, the Reserved Sacrament is brought from the chapel and Holy Communion shared as a sign of Christ’s working and presence—even in death—for us, and as an affirmation that this is indeed “Good” Friday, where life has the final word. We leave again in silence.


3. Holy Saturday/Easter Sunday (traditionally marked by a fast or light meal before the Vigil)

The Holy Saturday service at 10 AM takes place at the main altar,
now bare of all but the Gospel Book. We are placed at the Tomb of Christ
and recall his descent to the dead in order to raise them to New Life.
10 AM: Holy Saturday “Tomb” Service (not essential, but powerful in its simplicity)
This simple service continues in silence, then moves to an account of Christ’s burial. A sermon on Christ’s decent into Hades from the Early Church period is read (it is an amazing text), and prayers from the Burial Liturgy are read. An extraordinary peace and quiet pervade this liturgy. The Holy Temple is then readied for the Easter Vigil.

The font is full and ready for baptisms; the brazier is prepared for the New
Fire, and the screen before the altar is in place so that our attention
at the beginning of the Great Vigil will be on the darkened nave
and our focus on waiting for the proclamation of the Resurrection as
we hear the great lessons from the Old Testament preparing the way for
this most holy night!

9 PM: The Great Vigil of Easter (our main Easter service)
The Great Vigil of Easter is the most joyful and blessed moment of the Church Year; it opens the Royal Doors to the central fact of the Christian Faith, that Christ is risen from the dead, and that through baptism we now share his life and may rise with him. The ancient practice of making the Great Vigil the principal Easter service has long been the case at St. Timothy’s, so do not expect Easter Day to be the larger service. Children—even young ones—are very much welcome and expected at the Great Vigil. You may want to dress them in clothes they would find comfortable for sleeping. The nursery will be open, but little ones sleeping in the pews is entirely normal and encouraged. Guests are also very much encouraged…please invite as many people as you know and feel will be open to this rich and moving experience of New Life in Christ.

The Paschal Candle -- sign of Christ's rising from the dead.
It is lit from the New Fire on Easter Eve and burns at all
liturgies throughout the Great 50 Days of Easter,
as well as at all baptisms and funerals through the year.


The Vigil is long; it is meant to be. We are waiting on God, putting ourselves at the end, not the head, of the line. We wait in darkness; the church is like a tomb, with the altar area screened off by a high white curtain. Suddenly, the Paschal Fire is struck (reminding us of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem each Easter). From it, the Paschal Candle—harbinger of the Resurrection—is lit, processed, and blessed in a very ancient praise-prayer: the Exultet. Then come the readings from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, telling the story of God’s loving and saving work from the beginning through the Prophets. A short sermon is then preached and then our hand-candles are lit and we are bidden to stand.

It is now that Lent is declared over and Holy Baptism is celebrated. The candidates (or their sponsors, if infants) make their baptismal promises in front of the congregation: we face west to renounce evil and east to affirm Christ. Then a procession is made to the font as the Litany of the Saints is sung. We pray God’s strengthening grace and invoke the names of many saints as we prepare to add to their number. The baptismal waters are blessed in a great chanted prayer accompanied by many ancient  actions indicating God's living presence in this moment, the font is censed, and all gather as close as possible (some people even stand on pews to get a better view!). Candles burn brightly and the room is hushed; it is a unique moment of intentionality as we await sacred birth.

The new Christians are made by joining their Lord through immersion in the font, dying and rising again with Christ and then receiving the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. After the newly-baptized are anointed, receive their baptismal candles, and are introduced to their new family of faith, the whole congregation is sprinkled liberally with baptismal water, physically sharing in what we have just witnessed and being recalled to the centrality of our own baptism.

The candle used by the priest when proclaiming Christ's
Resurrection to the congregation,
just before the First Eucharist of Easter.

More darkness and waiting follow as we kneel in silence, catching our collective breath and being gathered together in expectation. Then, as the choir with rising force sings a glorious hymn of Christ’s triumph over death, the glow of the Resurrection is seen behind the screen between us and the holy altar; the curtain is parted, and we rise to hear the most beautiful words in any language: “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Priest and people exchange this greeting three times. Easter has come in its fullness! The hymn Jesus Christ is risen today follows as the curtain is pulled completely back and light floods the church. Then comes a joyous, almost raucous moment as everyone produces the hand bells (or keys on rings!) they have brought to ring out as we sing the Gloria in excelsis while the altar is censed. At this moment the air shimmers with light, scent, and sound.

After a reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans and a hymns, the Gospel of the Resurrection is proclaimed. There follows the second (!) sermon of the service: The Easter Homily of St. John Chrysostom (often called the perfect sermon). But, what a sermon it is! The congregation stands and takes its part as directed during this remarkable, short, astounding homily. The First Eucharist of Easter is then celebrated, the newly-baptized receiving their first Communion. At the end of Communion we begin to sing the ancient and powerful hymn of Christ’s victory: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in tombs bestowing life!” We sing it many times, building delight, savoring this moment of Resurrection joy together.

Now the liturgy begun on Thursday is brought to a glorious conclusion with a final blessing and a sung dismissal complete with many Alleluias. As we sing a closing hymn and the organ sounds in a mighty postlude, the congregation leaves what earlier seemed a dark tomb clothed in absence, but is now revealed to be a bright temple of God’s presence. On the way out, the priest hands each person a blessed Easter egg and gives the Paschal Greeting, “Christ is risen!” to which we respond “The Lord is risen indeed!”

Easter at St. Timothy's includes the Agape Feast, with food and (most years)
dancing for all. It lasts until the pre-dawn hours. It celebrates the Resurrection with
much joy and laughter. The above photo shows what the Agape looks like
after the tables and chairs are cleared and the dancing is about to begin. 

Agapé Feast (following the Great Vigil)
After the Vigil liturgy, St. Timothy’s hosts a great feast of radiant joy in the Parish Hall, celebrating the Resurrection and the AgapĂ© love we all share through it. It is one of the most vivid aspects in our community life, and something visitors always remember. Anyone may come, and guests are most surely welcome! If you want to help provide food or other assistance, sign-up sheets will be available in the narthex in the weeks prior to Holy Week. Please bring your own beverages and glassware. Young persons are encouraged to participate and help out where possible. This meal begins with blessings over bread, wine, lamb, and then the whole glorious array of choice foods. This feast takes the experience of the Vigil and begins to live it out in a very vivid foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet where all sorts and conditions may gather together in holy joy.

Alleliua! Christ is risen from the Dead!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

11 AM: Easter Day Eucharist (much simpler and quieter than the Vigil...but still Easter!)
The Easter Day Eucharist tells the story of St. Mary Magdalene meeting the Risen Christ in the garden. It is a moving account of spiritual awakening and devoted love. The familiar Easter hymns and beautiful flowers all combine to bring our Easter Day celebrations to a radiant and peaceful conclusion. Easter Day has come—but Eastertide has just begun! The Great 50 Days of Easter (lasting until Pentecost) are to be savored, enjoyed, and LIVED not only for this season...but forever in the hearts of all believers.


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